A few days ago, the Library as Incubator Project posted an interview they did with me about earlier this month. I had a lot of fun doing the interview, and it also got me to think through how my art informs my practice as a librarian (and vice versa). Check it out!
In recent weeks, the State Historical Society of Iowa has been faced with reorganization and funding cuts, which threaten to reduce access to its irreplaceable collections and to displace staff who have dedicated their careers to helping Iowans learn about their past. Plenty of folks have written about the specifics of the situation (the petition link includes links to many helpful sources to educate yourself), but what I want to focus on is my experience with SHSI, and why that experience makes me believe absolutely in the importance of keeping this organization funded and its records accessible .
I was lucky enough to work at SHSI at the start of my Master’s program, and it was one of the most valuable and enjoyable jobs I’ve had. I started volunteering there when I decided I would apply to the Library and Information Studies program, and later came on as a work-study employee after I was accepted. I bounced around to do a few different things at the Iowa City branch, including some cataloging, preservation/conservation, and special collections (one of my first assignments was working with Civil War and World War I diaries from Iowa veterans, which was challenging and lots of fun). I got to learn about some awesome Iowans through the records they left behind, and their stories are the ones I turn to again and again when I talk with others about the value of preserving history.
Dissertation Research Ahoy! (a.k.a. Ernestine Rose and the Harlem Public Library: Theory Testing using Historical Sources)
I’ve been talking a lot about my dissertation lately (surprise), and wanted to go ahead and stick a quick run down of what I’m doing here too. I’m very excited about the work I’m doing, and I would love to hear your feedback! I’m also happy to share my documentation and talk more about my process with anyone who is interested.
What is this project about?
I started thinking about this topic after being encouraged to look at Ernestine Rose by one of my mentors. The project has evolved over time, and while her career is still the jumping off point, I’m now focusing on her work at the Harlem Public Library in particular. She was at this library from 1920-1942. There are a handful of articles in our field that argue that Rose helped make the library into an innovative community space and an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Anderson, 2003; Jenkins, 1990). While she initially worked to integrate the library by hiring people of color, there are some indications that she dampened her support for the advancement and inclusion of these same folks later on in their careers (Whitmire 2007, 2014).
I’m using the documents held in several New York City repositories (New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Branch and Schomburg Center, Columbia University archives, and New York Municipal Archives) that relate to the library to describe the library, and also to test two theories (more on why that matters later). There are a couple challenges/considerations that I want to mention right off the bat. My research is very context-heavy, so it’s vital for me to describe that context and how the library fits within it, rather than describing the library as though it exists in a vacuum. Equally as important is discussing the role of other people besides Rose within the library. While my focus is on her career, I don’t want to risk overshadowing the contributions of others by only talking about her.
Why does it matter?
There are several big reasons (in my opinion) why this project is important. First of all, most of what’s out there focuses on the library’s role in the Harlem Renaissance, where became a well-known center for events and a place where authors often went to write (Anderson, 2003; Jenkins, 1990). There is not a lot of information currently about the library during the Great Depression and the beginning years of World Way II, both of which would have presumably had a big impact on the library. In addition, no one has thoroughly discussed her work and the library within the broader context of New York City, the New York Public Library system, or society as a whole throughout this 22 year period.
Additionally, no one has applied the two theoretical frameworks I’m using to historical research. The first of these is a framework I’m developing to analyze change (called, appropriately, Change in Historic Institutions). I’ve made a model of this, and plan to share the model in a more detailed post later on, but for now I’ll just focus on the broad concepts. This model focuses on identifying change, discussing whether that change is innovative or adaptive, and its impact and perceptions. Second, I’m looking at Information Worlds, which envisions actors within the variety of contexts they navigate, and uses five concepts (Information value, information behavior, social norms, social types, and boundaries) to describe those worlds and the interaction between them. Both theories are very broad and adaptable, and very context-focused, making them appropriate for this study. These are drastically oversimplified discussions of both theories, so if you have questions, I’m happy to go into further detail!
Finally, I think this work has the potential to be used by professionals in public library settings. When she was working in Harlem, Ernestine Rose had already had some experience in her career (she was about 40 when she took the job), and would have needed to draw on this experience while remaining adaptable and flexible to meet the needs of a quickly changing neighborhood. Her employees also faced discrimination from the library system, and used their own experiences to make the library a dynamic and community-oriented place. The story of Rose and the library as a whole might offer some useful ideas for modern librarians on what to do (and perhaps what not to do) in their own institutions.
References for your reading pleasure:
Anderson, S. A. (2003). “The Place to Go”: The 135th Street Branch Library and the Harlem Renaissance. Library Quarterly, 73(4): 383–421.
Jenkins, B. L. (1990). A White Librarian in Black Harlem: Study to Chronicle and Assess Ernestine Rose’s Work during the Renaissance in Harlem. Library Quarterly 60, 216–231.
Whitmire, E. (2007). Breaking the Color Barrier: Regina Andrews and the New York Public Library. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(4), 409–421.
Whitmire, E. (2014). Regina Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
#YesAllWomen is taking off on Twitter right now, and if you haven’t given it a look, you should. It’s heartbreaking to hear people’s stories of feeling unsafe and unsupported even in the face of reporting sexual violence and stalking, and being denied privileges ranging from the ability to use public transit without incidence to being able to go to work and have an uneventful day. All of these stories are important and need to be heard and taken seriously. Far too many of these stories were ones I can relate to. This tweet touched on something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: Sexual violence on college campuses:
As a researcher, I’ve been a part of a project that starts to look at getting information to survivors, particularly on campuses. As a woman, I’ve experienced assault and stalking on and off college campuses, as have many of my female (and a few of my male) friends. Once I finish my dissertation, this is a research stream I want to dive into again, and Soraya’s tweet helped reinvigorate me, especially after the recent coverage FSU has gotten for its treatment of rape survivors.
So why am I posting about wanting to do this research on my blog? Because I want feedback, and right now seems like a good time to get feedback from the people I ultimately want to help. On a lot of campuses, there doesn’t seem to be much survivor-focused information that’s pushed out where people can access it easily and anonymously (and without prodding to pursue a certain course of action during their healing process). Libraries are an important part of the campus community, and are already a resource people are using (and are potentially less intimidating than other resources might feel). What I’m hoping to do is to construct a shell web resource, available without cost to university libraries, that gives survivors the information they need and can be added to by the library so local resources are also included. This way, it could be included on the library site as a desperately-needed information resource, although it should be emphasized that it will be there to point people to the things they need and provide information that is empowering and nonjudgmental, but it will not be something that turns the library into a counseling resource or anything like that. I eventually want to expand on it more to include resources for other related issues (domestic violence, mental health, etc.) and to offer resources to public libraries as well, but this is such a huge problem on college campuses that it’s important to start there.
So here’s where you come in: What do you want to see in this resource? What do you think would be helpful information to share with survivors at various stages of the healing process? I have plenty of ideas, but I want more! And while we’re at it, what other ways can information professionals (librarians and researchers like myself) be involved in bringing these conversations to light, and what kind of research can we be doing to help (hopefully) make an impact? I’m happy to hear from folks in the comments, but I also don’t want to jeopardize the privacy of any survivors (or non-survivors) who want to share their thoughts, so I’m happy to get emails as well (juliacskinner at gmail dot com). And last but not least, I want to thank everyone who has shared their stories on Twitter–you are strong and courageous for putting yourself out there, and I’m grateful that there are so many people out there inspiring and supporting one another!
I’ve been thinking about some of the arguments I’ve seen recently that place the focus of student debt arguments on students. The end of one article I saw last month caught my attention for this reason, and I’ve written a bit of a response. It’s somewhat more blunt and cranky than my writing typically is, but if you don’t mind that, read on!
Last month, an article was published in The Atlantic that brought attention to Karen Kelsky’s PhD Debt spreadsheet in Google docs. The spreadsheet gave current and former grad students a chance to talk about their debt and how they try to manage it. Lots of people have some really good ideas about dealing with debt, and some of these, as well as plenty of information on the rising cost of education, make it into what was mostly a very enjoyable article. However, at the end of the article, the author reminds us that PhD debt can also be the result of “simply making poor decisions,” and points to the following quote:
I tutored, worked 5 jobs, never bought drinks or ate on campus. I had several craiglist tutor jobs up. I also had a 6 years of Research Assistant to an administrator in which I published a lot. I got 3 years fellowships. I played the game and it was okay for the tuition payoff. I don’t regret it but do not recommend it for anyone unless you are rich and want to get a “vanity PhD.”
I have several friends who owe over 100K and are very bitter and they have a right to be. I want to say I was lucky but I worked my ass off!
There were over 14 of us when we started and only 4 graduated. There are 3 more that have over 100K debt and are still in the program. They let some of the people “hang themselves with their own rope” by not funding them and those people withered away. The older grad students were left to fend for themselves and also died on the vine. I also saw just plain bad decision making like some grad students living by themselves when they should have got a roommate or buying a new mac computer every 2 years and attending every conference on credit card debt.
I know people who have done this. I’ve worked full-time in graduate school. We all work our asses off and make a lot of sacrifices. But ending the article with this implies that this should be the path everyone takes (or is able to take). First of all, huge kudos to this person for having the energy and ability to work so many jobs and balance that with graduate school. If you’re able to do that, good for you, and you have a skill set there to be proud of.
However, how feasible is this for…almost anyone else? How can you tell me and my colleagues that it’s stupid of us to borrow money to attend conferences, when the decision not to attend a conference means not being able to share your research or get a job with your degree? How could someone who’s a parent possibly work all these jobs on top of the insane workload of school and childrearing? How could you tell me that when I elected to live alone when my world was crashing around me last year, that I made a “bad decision” by choosing to keep my sanity rather than living with that insane couple from Craigslist?
Ending the article with a quote that emphasizes other people’s different choices as “bad” places the onus of student debt squarely on the shoulders of debtors, and ignores the much, *much* bigger issue of unreasonable educational costs. Students have always made sacrifices to go to school, but the implication was that they would be able to be more prosperous in their careers. I love my students, my field, and my research so much, and I’m grateful every day to do my work. However, I also am looking at paying back a mortgage’s worth of debt so I can do work that will hopefully help people and improve education.* This means that I don’t have the freedom to be as flexible in where I go or how many risks I can take, which in turn potentially diminishes how well I can do the work I’m paying all this money to do. I feel like in my field I’m very lucky because my colleagues are supportive and wonderful, and wherever I go I’ll probably be in an environment that fosters creativity and professional development, but I know that’s not the case for a lot of people.
Just like every other student, my path is a process of balance as I try to negotiate keeping costs low while in school while also doing the things I need to for success. In my case, I grow, cook, and preserve as much of my own food as possible, I hand wash my clothes, I keep my heat low and my A/C high, and I walk wherever I can (among many, many other things). But I also need to travel to conferences, pay my rent, keep the lights on, and sleep once in a while in lieu of working a 4th job, and so I take out loans. The idea of paying them back is absolutely terrifying, but it’s also the only option if I want an education (our departments try to offer as much assistance as they can, but in a lot of cases their hands are tied when it comes to how much students can be compensated and for how long).
My path isn’t right for everyone either (I doubt most people are interested in fermenting sauerkraut in their apartments!), but I think it’s a mistake on the part of the article’s author and this former student to judge other people’s decisions without knowing what goes into them. I have very good reasons to live alone, and I have very good reasons to not get a 4th job. Other students have struck a different balance and there are very good reasons behind their decisions too. Yes, sometimes people make bad choices, but that is true with absolutely any set of decisions one is offered with, and the vast majority of the time, student loans are used to try to make ends meet. My advice to them is to remember that this problem is bigger than any one of us, and to turn your judgment and frustration towards those making it near-impossible to get an education. If you still want to direct some feelings towards struggling grad students, make sure they are feelings and actions that help those people learn and put food on the table at the same time.
*I think the biggest problem I have with a lot of this is the assumption that because someone is willing to pay for an expensive education, that it means it’s ok that the education is expensive (and this wasn’t in the article, per se, just a trend I’ve noticed).